Behind the scenes: Even magazine

by Stine Fantoft Berg in May 2016
Art & design

One glance at the cover of contemporary art magazine Even tells you this is no ordinary arts title. With its dense text obscuring an eclectic image (which is revealed on the magazine’s last page) there’s a clear desire to do things differently.

I caught up with editor Jason Farago (right, with publisher Rebecca Ann Siegel) during his busy schedule at Frieze New York to learn more about the magazine, his approach to criticism, and why we need to take a fresh look at the art world.

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What’s your background, and what sparked the idea for Even?
I’m an art historian and critic from New York. I went to Yale to study art history, then spent a year working at an art gallery before moving to London in 2006, where I did my graduate study at the Courtauld Institute of Art. While I was in London I started writing for the Guardian, and I now serve as their US art critic.

Even isn’t a reaction to any particular art magazine; I actually admire many of them, and indeed wrote for them. It came instead from my exhaustion with the larger public discourse around contemporary art. In the last 15 years art has become more popular, more global, and more expensive than ever before, but it’s still being discussed as if nothing had changed since the 1980s. Even wants to be a roadmap to the world of art in the 21st century.

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You’ve said that “Even revives the tradition of criticism” – why did it need to be revived?
For decades people have been saying that criticism is ‘dead’, though not with very much precision. Rather, critics no longer have the power to make exclusionary judgments about works of art in the way that, for example, Clement Greenberg did in Partisan Review in the 1950s.

Art criticism today has to provide an apparatus to make sense of a global system of art in constant flux, rather than indulge in thumbs-up-thumbs-down reactions that have no worth anymore. Every Instagram of a work of art is in a sense a thumbs-up judgment; criticism has to do something much more.

The goal is to walk the line between the art world and the real world, and to understand that art is both a humanistic endeavour that deserves aesthetic scrutiny, and a component of a giant network of political, financial, and social concerns. To think about art without reducing it to decoration on the one hand, or social work on the other: that is our approach to criticism.

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Each issue of Even is rooted in current affairs and political matters – where do you begin?
In some cases, I know which artists and exhibitions have the most potential and I work from there, but often I reach out to writers and artists in regions where a certain issue seems especially urgent. For example, when I put together issue three I knew I wanted to feature art from Poland, where the country’s arts institutions are faced with a new hard-right government; I reached out to the critic Karol Sienkiewicz, who made the very shrewd proposal to write about three exhibitions in Warsaw concerned with ruins and reconstruction.

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Are you ever afraid to be too political?
I wouldn’t put it like that. What I’d say is that I want to ensure that thinking about politics never overwhelms our focus on art. Even is an art magazine, first and foremost, and art should never be just an illustration for political concerns. The same issue that features that ambitious, very political essay on art and architecture in Poland also features an ambitious, not at all political essay on abstract painting.

And politics is just one aspect of current affairs we care about. Economics is another major interest of ours (our upcoming issue looks closely at Brazil’s museums and arts institutions in the wake of the country’s boom and bust). Ecology, too: the lead review of this issue is a deeply moving piece by the Paris-based American writer Thomas Chatteron Williams on an exhibition at the Louvre, seen through the lens of the COP21 climate conference and his own worries for his daughter’s future.

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Who is Even aimed at?
There are so many curious, intelligent readers who want to think seriously about art, and who want to understand the terrain of art today. They are justifiably confused by the priestly language of academia, and unimpressed by vodka-sponsored, PR-soaked digital alternatives. There’s no reason why writing about contemporary art can’t be clear, ambitious, and accessible, without dumbing itself down.

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What’s the thinking behind the cover, and the background image that’s revisited on the final page of the magazine?
Actually, when we first approached our designers – Yoonjai Choi and Ken Meier of the New York firm Common Name – we wanted to do a cover that had no image on it at all. I had constructed this neurotically fussy mood board of 1970s German magazines with dense, heavy text on the covers…

But when Ken and Yoonjai showed us a mockup of a cover, with this peekaboo painting behind a solid block of text, we fell in love. The balance on the cover – with words dominating image – reverses the standard format of an art magazine, where a powerful image is usually the selling point.

The last page reveals the image on the cover, and gives a very pithy sense of why a 19th-century Japanese print or an 18th-century Indian miniature matters to contemporary art today. It’s not supposed to be an illustration of an issue’s theme, it’s more like the tonic of a musical scale; it sets the pitch for a whole variety of sounds.

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